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Address by President-elect, David Cannadine, 2017

Address by the President-elect, Professor Sir David Cannadine, to the Annual General Meeting of the British Academy, 20 July 2017.

• David Cannadine

I am very much aware that as of this moment, I am merely the President-elect of the Academy, and that I do not become the thirtieth President until the end of this meeting. But when that finally happens, I shall be the latest in a long line of succession extending back, via Nick Stern, Adam Roberts, Onora O’Neill and Keith Thomas, all of whom it is a great delight to see here this afternoon, to Lord Reay, the Academy’s founding President. It is indeed, as someone said to me only this morning, not wholly encouragingly, ‘a brilliant line of succession – behind you’. As it happens, and very appropriately for the President of an Academy representing the whole of the United Kingdom, Lord Reay was of Scottish descent, but he was born and grew up in the Netherlands, he served as Governor of Bombay, he held junior office in Lord Rosebery’s Liberal administration, and he was later a British delegate at the Peace Conference which led to the signing of The Hague Convention in 1907. During the acrimonious debates over the Parliament Bill in the aftermath of Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’, Reay memorably observed: ‘oligarchies are seldom destroyed, and more frequently commit suicide.’

For any essentially self-recruiting and self-perpetuating organization, and the British Academy has been described in just those terms, this is a cautionary warning. But it is not one to which we need to pay all that much heed: the Academy, as I have increasingly come to appreciate in recent months, is too vigorous, too meritocratic, too self-critical and just occasionally too disputatious for Reay’s strictures to apply. At the same time, we ought to take comfort and inspiration from the cosmopolitan nature of Reay’s interests, and from the global range of his engagement and experience. He might have been the first President of the British Academy, but he had a far wider view of intellectual life than that relatively narrow territorial designation implies, and the same has been true of the Academy itself, ever since Reay’s time. We belong to, and are an essential component of, the global Republic of Letters, which stands for liberalism, tolerance, humane learning and free trade in ideas. But in today’s world, where parochialism, nativism, nationalism, xenophobia and populism seem in too many places to be on the march and on the rise, and which are the negation of everything the Academy stands for, we continue to face challenges which we must continue to turn into opportunities.

At the top of the list of the challenges is the undeniable fact that, unlike any of my predecessors or, I suspect, any of my successors, I shall be the Academy’s one and only Brexit President. What is Brexit going to mean for the Academy during my tenure of office? It won’t, as the prime minister implausibly insists, just mean Brexit. On the contrary, it will surely mean many things, and we do not know for certain what they will yet be. If the widely predicted downturn in government revenue comes to pass, it may mean a less good financial settlement than that which Nick and Alun so successfully negotiated last time. It will surely mean a continuing debate about what sort of Brexit, if any, there will be, and in those international negotiations and public conversations the Academy will and must play a significant part, across all its disciplines, from history to philosophy, from economics to politics, and from international law to international relations. And in the light of the hopelessly uninformed referendum, the indecisive general election, and the apparently unprepared British negotiating position vis a vis Brussels, there is also bound to be more soul searching about the functioning of our government, the workings of our constitution, and the relationship between the United Kingdom and its constituent parts in which, again, the Academy ought to play a major role.

Over the next four years, I suspect that the British government and the civil service are not going to have time for doing much apart from dealing with Brexit. But while the Academy should undoubtedly be engaged with these issues and these matters, and not just for itself but also on behalf of higher education as a whole, it is vital that we do not allow ourselves to become preoccupied with Brexit to the exclusion of all else. And thanks to the work of Nick and his predecessors, we know better than ever what those other vital tasks are. I do not, for instance, think that the public profile of the Academy has ever been higher than it is now; but it undoubtedly needs raising still further. We enjoy a greater degree of government support and funding than ever before, for which we are deeply and abidingly grateful; but that also means that we are far too dependent on a single source of income. It is not as easy as it should be to speak truth to power when power holds most of the purse strings. Our buildings are splendid and splendidly located, with the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Council, the Institute for Government and the Institute of Contemporary Art close by. There is no better or more central place in London for us to be, but we need to take more advantage of the intellectual weight and collaborative potential of all our near neighbours than we have done so far.

We also urgently need to secure our future here in Carlton House Terrace. This in turn means that one of the high priorities of my Presidency will be to raise much more money than we have so far succeeded in doing, and with a Development Office fully up and running, and with a Development Board now in place, we are better equipped to do so than ever before. We need to buy down and extend our lease, to give us the security and scope that would come from enjoying a longer-term occupancy, and also to free up for other purposes some of the money at present we pay in annual rent to the Crown Estate. We need to create a much bigger endowment of unrestricted funding, which will give us an income stream over which we have complete control, and which will thereby strengthen our impartial and independent position. And along with raising income we need to keep working to raise our profile still further: with government, with the civil service, with the media and with the wider public. The programme of events we now put on is the best, the most varied and the most far-reaching that we have ever undertaken, and it involves more Fellows than ever before. But we still need to work harder at proclaiming – and at demonstrating – the importance of the humanities and the social sciences to the health and well-being of society.

Let me suggest some ways in which we might hope to raise more money and raise our profile still further. Despite the undeniable risks of over-dependence, we need to consolidate still further our links with government, especially Treasury, BEIS, DFID and DCMS, and to urge that the funding of the humanities and the social sciences is not merely recreational but absolutely essential to our national and international well-being -- and never more so than now. We need closer and more creative links with many of this country’s great cultural institutions, among them the BBC, the British Library, the British Museum and the Royal Academy. Across many years, we have been generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Wolfson Foundation, but there are other great foundations and trusts with which we need to engage. Every year, at Christmas, the Royal Institution sponsors a series of televised lectures on scientific subjects; I do not see why the British Academy should not do the same for the humanities and social sciences. There are, after all, many of our Fellows who are at ease and well known on the small screen.

We also need to raise our international profile and level of engagement. The British Academy works well and co-operates closely with the other great academies of this country – the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Academies of Medicine and Engineering – and I am very eager that we should continue to do so. But more than ever, in this era of Brexit, we need to consolidate closer links with the great academies of Europe and those in North America. We must think how we can work in new ways with our own international institutes in Ankara, Athens, Nairobi, Tehran, Rome and Amman, to encourage them to engage more fully with those parts and peoples of the wider world to which they connect us. And we need to give more attention to those Honorary Fellows, to many of our Ordinary Fellows, and to all of our Corresponding Fellows, who live and work abroad. We may be the British Academy, but we are also a global organization – and we need to give more attention to this than we have so far done. Many of the issues with which the Academy is now engaging, such as the Future of the Corporation project, are intrinsically and inescapably global issues; and we should seek global sources of funding, both for specific projects and for the Academy more generally.

Above all, we need in these uncertain times, when institutions are distrusted and derided, and when expertise is mocked and scorned, to proclaim the abiding and essential importance of truth, reason, evidence-based learning, intellectual distinction, and quality and power of mind. That is what, above all else, the British Academy stands for today, and continue to stand for during my presidency. Although I am no pessimist, it is difficult not to feel that we live in dark and difficult times, with many challenges to be sure, but also with abundant opportunities and possibilities a plenty. Now more than ever, it is the Academy’s task and its obligation to provide light and learning and hope and wisdom for our vexed nation and for our troubled world. For four years, that has been Nick Stern’s job as President, and he has done it brilliantly. From the end of this meeting, that will be my job in turn; I am hugely looking forward to it, and I am very eager to be getting on with it.

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